Chicago’s spending on in-house public relations and communications staff has increased dramatically over the past decade, a Better Government Association policy team analysis of budget and timesheet data found. A twelvefold growth in the Chicago Police Department’s communications division is one of the key factors in the dramatic cost increase for city PR.
Mayor Richard M. Daley’s final budget for the City of Chicago, for 2011, included 102 full-time positions for public relations and communications professionals. In an expansion launched by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with employment levels maintained under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city has increased its PR staff by 66 positions, nearly all of them within the Chicago Police Department.
The CPD has grown from four full-time communications staff members to 48, a 1200% growth over 11 years. Mayor Lightfoot’s most recent budget proposal, released Oct. 3, calls for adding two more public relations positions to the police department.
Compared with its peer cities, Chicago spends a considerably higher portion of its overall budget on public relations salaries, budget and salary databases showed. Chicago appropriated funds for 163 full-time PR and communications positions in 2021, the most recent year for which salary data is available from all three cities–more than twice as many as Los Angeles, with 66, and approaching New York’s 189.
Although PR spending in all three cities makes up a tiny share of their multi-billion-dollar budgets, the portion of its budget Chicago pays for PR staff salaries is nearly double the portion budgeted in Los Angeles, and more than eight times the portion budgeted in New York. Measured on a per capita basis, Chicago’s public relations staffing is more than double that of peer cities.
Chicago’s outsized public relations spending is a recent development driven by massive growth in the police department’s communications staff. During his first mayoral term, Rahm Emanuel had a public relations budget that looked much like his predecessor’s. Overall communications staffing actually declined slightly in Emanuel’s first budget and stayed relatively flat through 2014, with only a slight increase in the 2015 budget.
A dramatic increase in police PR staff took place during Emanuel’s second term, following the murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke. The 2016 budget, which was prepared in 2015 while the Emanuel administration was fighting a public records request and subsequent lawsuit that eventually forced the release of the shooting footage, increased the police department’s public relations team from six full-time employees to 25. Additional staff in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 budgets more than doubled CPD’s communications staff to a peak of 52 full-time employees in Emanuel’s last year in office.
Lightfoot’s administration has done little to reverse the trend. Slight cuts have reduced the overall public relations headcount from a 2019 high of 172 to 168 positions in the 2022 budget, while the total cost of public relations salaries has continued to rise to an all-time high of $14.6 million. Lightfoot’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2023, now under consideration by City Council, calls for a return to the record-high 172 positions and a salary appropriation of $15.1 million.
In addition to the departmental staff reflected in the city budget, the administration also partners with the city’s dedicated tourism and business attraction agencies, Choose Chicago and World Business Chicago, and with sister agencies such as the Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Schools, all of which have their own communications staffs and budgets.
In Lightfoot’s 2022 budget, CPD and the mayor’s office house more than a third of the city’s full-time public relations and communications positions, a proportion that would not change under the 2023 proposals.
The sharp increase in public relations staff, begun under Emanuel and preserved in Lightfoot’s budgets, has been almost entirely driven by growth in police department positions. Other city agencies largely have maintained steady staffing levels for a decade, or in some cases reduced staffing.
CPD’s public relations staff accounted for $3.85 million in full-time salaries in the 2022 budget. Most are uniformed police officers: out of the 61 employees active on timesheets for the Communications Division since Lightfoot’s inauguration, 50 are uniformed personnel with a listed star number, including 34 police officers, nine police sergeants and four police lieutenants. In 2022, timesheet data showed 42 active employees, of which 31 were uniformed personnel.
The average salary of a uniformed police officer in the 2022 budget was just under $94,000, compared to average salaries for multiple classes of Public Relations Representative positions ranging from $75,500 to $91,500. Police sergeants were budgeted at an average of $125,355 and police lieutenants at $138,500.
The CPD Communications Division website provides minimal insight into the day-to-day activities of $3.85 million worth of city personnel. Apart from an archive of press releases and press conference videos, its only feature is a “Crime Video Archives,” which is itself an embed of a playlist on the Chicago Police Department YouTube account showing camera footage from police investigations. The communications division also issues press credentials and provides “major incident notifications” to credentialed media.
A CPD description of Communications Division activities provided to the Better Government Association highlighted the department’s website content, and additionally described officers assigned to the News Affairs section receiving inquiries by phone and email. The department also highlighted uniformed News Affairs officers who are dispatched to major incidents to, per the department’s statement, “facilitate the release of information.” In addition to News Affairs, the Communications Division includes a Graphics Arts section that maintains the department’s photo and video archives.
The Office of Public Safety Administration, which was created by Mayor Lightfoot to take over non-uniformed roles from the city’s public safety departments, has not assumed any significant public relations duties. Apart from a single FOIA officer, it has no communications positions budgeted. A separate Better Government Administration analysis found that the Public Safety Administration’s operational costs outweighed its personnel savings to date, and its inactivity in the public relations arena further calls into question its role as a consolidated body for non-uniformed public safety activities.
Mayor Lightfoot’s current budget proposal, if passed unchanged, would continue to increase the city’s public relations staff, including at CPD. It remains for City Council to decide whether to use the 2023 budget process to reverse the Emanuel-era increase in public relations spending, particularly at the Chicago Police Department, or to approve Lightfoot’s continuation of the trend.